“Affective memory assails you when you least expect it and is felt more profoundly than conventional memory. These memories are essential for the cooks, the food critic and the writer. They enrich your day-to-day life and your relationships with your family and friends. When I smell or see certain recipes, I also see my family – wife, daughter, brothers, mother or friends; there is no separating food from the visual. When I eat a small spring salad, I see my father’s garden or my gardens in upstate New York or Connecticut.”
It bothered me. The essay really bothered me. I read it right after Thanksgiving, when it appeared in the Atlantic: “The Myth of Easy Cooking” by Elizabeth Dunn, who comes across as a 30-something busy mother in New York City. Ms. Dunn’s lament, in many more eloquent words, boils down to the difficulty of recipes that tout themselves as “easy”, doable in 20 or 30 minutes. A working mother barely able to stay afloat, Ms. Dunn claims, can’t possibly find the time to master cooking techniques, especially when meals are easily available, in the form of take-out or otherwise prepared food. In essence, prepared by other people. The novice could spend 10 of those 30 minutes just gathering the ingredients the recipe calls for; recipes are misleading and always require a level of skill a newbie doesn’t possess, and need too much time and effort to master.
No s***. I thought. Nothing much in life is second nature, everything requires we apply some time and effort to become halfway decent at. But where was the fault in her argument? Ms. Dunn loves cooking but argues that ingredients found in recipes everywhere have become too obscure, that a gadget-filled kitchen has not made the job that much faster and, as women still mostly carry the burden of feeding a family, it is easier, if not as healthy, to succumb to organizing dinner without ever touching a pot or turning on the stove. Still, her arguments that recipes are misleading and that cooking on a semi-daily basis was out of the realm of a working mother’s possibilities bothered me for days. I instinctively knew something was amiss, that the importance of finding time to cook went beyond feeding a household.
It took Jacques Pepin and a couple of beautifully written passages to remind me what was wrong with Ms. Dunn’s argument. Food equates memories. Memories more powerful than the thousand photos stored in my phone, or the hazy recollections of times gone by. Food memories link generations, bring people who are no more back to life. Tiny and pillow-y jam donuts will always be afternoons spent at my aunt Iris’ house; the mille-feuilles I recreated from memory, after much trial and error, is Sunday mornings in my favorite patisserie, choosing cakes with my dad; the tortellini my mother taught me, that she learnt from her mother, will always be the essence of her. Even the zucchini I am browning as I write this, and that I will add to pasta with salmon, will always bring to mind Paola, a friend I lost touch with, who taught me the dish over endless nights spent studying and chatting. I cannot brown zucchini without at least a fleeting thought of her.
And food keeps on creating new memories. From now on, every time I make a bowl of oatmeal with apple compote, I will think of Sue, and the tiny New York kitchen we called our own for two weeks, where we kept on stewing apples. And every time she eats poached eggs, she will think of me. And on and on and on.
And if it took me weekends, and evenings, and years sweating in a kitchen to learn how to create more memories and pass them on, it was time well spent. And now, if a recipe calls for 30 minutes of my time, I know I can get it done in 20.
You can read Elizabeth Dunn’s essay here and Jacques Pepin’s here http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/09/dining/jacques-pepin-food-memories.html?_r=